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What Is VAR, And Why Aren't The Refereeing Controversies They Stoke In The Premier League Going Away?

In theory, Video Assistant Review (VAR) should ensure more accurate officiating in a Premier League game. So why does it remain so controversial?

By Andrew Woodin
Premier League Ref

Introduced to the Premier League in 2019, VAR (video assistant referee) was originally implemented to assist refs on the pitch with close, in-game decisions, but despite its good intentions, it’s been the pervasive source of controversy. VAR is used to review penalty decisions, red cards, goals and instances of mistaken player identity (when refs punish the wrong player). In its inaugural season, of the 2,400 incidents checked, VAR overturned 109 decisions, averaging one reversed call per 3.5 matches. In theory, doing what it’s meant to do, right? Well, sometimes theory doesn’t always work in the real world.

By default, unless all those 109 overturned decisions are magically divided up and allocated equally in every category for every team, teams will see an uneven distribution of VAR reviews. In that same debut season, Newcastle suffered the most, not receiving the benefit of even one overturned call while the following year, Burnley benefited the most from its seven VAR overturns, leading to a net positive of four in favor of the Clarets. Tottenham also saw seven overturns, with four to the good, yet West Brom finished its season with 12 overturns, with a whopping nine rulings going against the Baggies. It can leave fans feeling hard done, especially since even sending a play to review is essentially a subjective decision taken by the referee. One after another, the inconsistencies stack up, creating an often-irritating paradox where the system solves one problem only to create another. Surely the limp condolence of "That’s just the luck of the draw" isn’t something we're going to have to get used to, right?

If the trajectory of VAR’s future can be assessed through the lens of the current 2022/2023 season, Premier League fans are in for one hell of a wild ride. We’re only a handful of games into the season, and fans are already pulling their hair out over VAR. Though Michail Antonio running into an opposing player in the lead up to a West Ham goal against Nottingham Forest on Aug. 14 was initially not whistled, VAR intervened and overturned the goal. West Ham fans were crying it was incidental contact and didn't directly impact the goal (except for the fact that Forest players, anticipating a foul call, essentially stopped playing.) That same day, Tottenham’s Harry Kane scored the equalizer in the 96th minute against Chelsea after a nail-biting series of three corner kicks. It was a tremendous effort and truly lovely header by the Englishman; however, it never should’ve happened. On the second corner, Cristian Romero blatantly pulled Chelsea’s Marc Cucurella by his hair, and somehow, ref Anthony Taylor missed it. Since Mike Dean in the VAR seat isn’t empowered to rule on common fouls, the Spurs got a fortuitous third chance when it should’ve been a free-kick for the Blues. Where’s the justice in that?

To mitigate the blowback from inconsistencies and other VAR-related issues, Premier League chief executive Richard Masters is backing a new change this season which comes in the form of releasing the referees' in-game conversations. In a recent article by British daily newspaper The Times, Masters says it’s all based on the need for transparency with how officials reach their conclusions.

"There is a general view that [releasing the audio] is a good thing,” Masters revealed. "There is a desire to be more open with fans about referees’ decision-making and how we do that precisely we need to work out.”

While that sounds all fine and dandy, further transparency of the refs’ judgement and process to reach one still doesn’t address the intrinsically problematic nature of VAR which sometimes takes a subjective incident and applies a ruling that is clear-cut, black and white. But that’s how it goes with machines. They’re engineered to work in absolutes under one, unilateral directive. No wiggle room, no air to breathe. An AI application that can process massive amounts of information might have some future promise, but for now, it is what it is. The system might not work perfectly, but hey, at least it’s not Skynet.   

Watch Premier League coverage on USA Network, featuring Premier League Mornings, select matches, and Premier League Goal Zone (check listings for games/schedule). And catch up on all the action on Peacock.

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